By Dennis L. Raney
World War II had just ended and our noble veterans were returning home, finally. My Navy veteran grandfather, Jefferson L. Raney, wanted to settle down in the area where he was raised; Mt. Sherman, Arkansas or as many people back in the day, used to refer to it as Raney Mountain. It is located in northwest Arkansas, just south of Jasper. Great grand parents, Harvey and Alice Raney, homesteaded and raised a family of thirteen children in a beautiful hand build two story home on the side of the old rugged mountain.
For $1.00 per acre, Jefferson purchased 320 acres of prime mountain top. The stipulation of homesteading was that you must live and develop the land for five years and it’s yours 100%. Since it was total wilderness (trees and rocks), he would spend half of the year working in Kansas City (mainly for the railroads) and the other half living and working on the homestead; that satisfied the requirement for maintaining a residence on the property.
The first thing he built was two small one room cabins and a barn. Sadly, the cabins burned down many years later in a lightning strike; but by that time, they were used mainly for storage. Although, my brother and I did spend many a night sleeping in one of them when we would have family visits in the 1950’s. It was both cool and creepy since we had to walk a long dark path to the cabin each night at bedtime with dimly lit flashlight.
Once he established his cabins, the next chore was to start clearing a large 40 acre field for hay. This would provide grass for a few milk cows. The excess milk and cream could be sold or traded along with the butter from churning the cream. He would keep a few chickens for eggs, several goats for milk and their excellent brush eating abilities, and as many hogs as he could maintain for meat and later to sell at the auction.
He also purchased a mule he named Jericho. Jericho was the work horse; so to speak; of the property. Imagine clearing 40 acres of trees today by hand and mule. It is hard to imagine doing that without a bulldozer pushing it all to the side and burning it, right? To clear the land back then required a lot chopping and hand sawing of trees. Once a tree was felled, a long slow arduous process would begin of digging the stump out by the roots. Dig and chop, dig and chop, remove and break apart large boulders of sandstone. This process would go on for years. Jericho was used to haul the large tree stumps and trunks out of the field. If they did find a tree that was just to large to possibly remove by the dig and chop method, it was a trip to town and the local hardware store for some dynamite; yes, in those days any farmer could walk right in to a farm store and and buy several sticks of dynamite! (No one worried about someone blowing up the court house or school!) He loved to tell me about the one huge stump they blasted about 50 feet into the air. It was a great show; but he was really angry because he had wasted so much dynamite; it was an expensive show.
After a long and hard winter, old Jericho went down and never got back up again. That is when grandpa purchased his first Cub tractor. He never named his tractor; it was always just the “tractor”. (In honor of his mule, I named my Cub Jericho.)
That little Cub tractor did just about everything the mule did and more. The only “Cub” attachments he had was a sickle mower and a plow. As any good farmer back in the day did, he adapted several other old horse and tractor drawn pieces of equipment do the other chores like raking hay and a wagon to haul rocks, wood, brush, etc.
Now, clearing land was still a need and his Cub tractor worked just as hard as Jericho did and maybe a little more. The techniques he used are not recommended today, but back in the 1950's, it was very common that farmers and their kin used common sense to protect themselves from injury. There was no OSHA or any other government agency “looking out” for your well being.
These are the basic steps he used for felling and removing large trees from his field, as best I can recall; it was a long time ago and I was very young, around 7 or 8 years old.
1. Using a small rope with a weighted monkey's fist he would toss it about midway up the trunk of the tree on a large limb.
2. He would use the small rope to pull a wire rope up and around the middle of the tree.
3. He would connect the wire rope to the tow-bar on the Cub and pull the rope taught.
4. He would begin the process of digging around the roots of the tree and axing and chain sawing the roots of the tree.
5. As he progressed on the roots, he would continue to pull the rope on the Cub taught.
6. Steps 4 and 5 continued for sometimes a day and longer. Also, while he was doing this, my brother and sisters would hang on the wire rope and bounce on it (we had fun and grandpa liked the extra weight on the tree).
7. Eventually, the tree would start to show some signs of starting to fall over as the roots continued to weaken.
8. Finally, the tree would give and fall. The remaining root ball would come pulling out of the earth.
9. While grandpa continued cutting the root ball loose, we (my brother and I) would start bucking the tree limbs with axes (smaller ones, we were not that old).
10. Finally, the tree was chopped up, cut up and hauled away for fire wood. The hole was back filled and grass sown on the spot where it once stood.
I can't count how many times we helped him do this process, but it was too many for me to remember. My brother and I always wanted the tree to be stubborn so he would have to get the dynamite out; that never happened. (However, we did get to blow something up a couple years later; that is another story.)
People back in the 40's and 50's were some of the hardest working people around. Using methods like these, he cleared over 120 acres of wilderness and made some of the finest hay and grazing land on the mountain. Here are a few pictures of what he accomplished. I don't know how he ever found the time to do all of the things he did in his short life.
Grandpa always said kids were too lazy, and that was in the 50’s; I can’t imagine what he would think of them today.
PS: Later on, his homestead shrank to 240 acres. The national park service pushed him to the point of them declaring “Imminent domain” in their quest to create the Buffalo National River Park (it is a beautiful park). He regretfully sold the land (or get nothing). He lost some of the most beautiful land he worked so hard for and freely shared with anyone who wanted to see it; he even personally would take time to hike the bluff trails and act as a tour guide. He was so proud of what he accomplished and rightfully so.